Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sex at Dawn

Unlike yesterday's book this one gets a recommendation.  Sex At Dawn really made me think about myself and the ways in which I view sexuality as well as being really informative on the subject of the general human tendency towards monogamy.  There is a huge amount of pressure in our culture to view any relationship outside of two people together forever as crime of some sort where obviously someone has been wronged.  In particular we see religious figures preaching the necessity of monogamy and the angelic state of two people fulfilling each other's every need for their entire lives.  There is a narrative that insists that this is the natural state of humankind and that going outside that natural state is dangerous and immoral.  That narrative is wrong and Sex At Dawn very convincingly shows why and how.

The greater part of the book is dedicated to debunking the myth of natural monogamy by talking about primates, medicine and forager societies.  If we look at bonobos and chimps we see all kinds of evidence that suggests that early humans were anything but monogamous.  In particular our large penises, shaped to remove the sperm from a previous lover from the vagina, show that our ancestors were not monogamous and there was much competition to be the one who successfully impregnated the female among the many males who had sex with her in a given cycle.  Gorillas, on the other hand, have micropenises which have no particular design features to suggest sperm competition - they fought their battles with physical might beforehand and have no reason to think the female might be impregnated by another male.

All the talk about the many societies where nonmonogamy is/was the norm is really quite interesting and I found the medical and scientific data to be convincing but as usual it is the psychology that really got me going.  The later parts of the book talk about modern relationships and the ways in which our physiology makes us really quite unsuited to maintaining monogamy over the long term.  Men are turned on and have higher testosterone levels when they experience novelty and variety.  Those high testosterone levels can give a feeling of euphoria; the high of a new relationship.  Over a lifelong relationship there is virtually guaranteed to be a time when men are exposed to an opportunity to be nonmonogamous and the high from that opportunity is amazingly difficult to resist.  This isn't because the relationship was bad or because its participants failed but rather simply based on biology.  This really shifts the discussion of monogamy or not from the realm of morality to the realm of logistics.  How can we create a situation where people can have flings with people other than their partner without damaging their primary relationship?

The book offers a number of clues from societies where monogamy is not practiced.  Many of them arrange specific times, situations or relationships in which people can have sex outside their primary relationship.  Sometimes the option is only available during certain events or only between certain age or social groups.  This makes sure that although people can get the high and excitement of sex with other people it has firm social boundaries that prevent it taking over primary relationships.  This is of course difficult to bring into our society because of the strong boundaries in place enforcing monogamy.  We don't have widely accepted ways in which people can have sex with random others - prostitution is considered dirty or unacceptable where it isn't outright illegal and honestly most of us want someone who wants us, not just someone who will take our money for fifteen minutes of work.

Reading all this stuff really got me further away from the camp of 'I will never love / have sex with multiple people concurrently'.  When I was young I really bought into the moral argument but now I don't.  Many nonmonogamous relationship styles aren't particularly workable but there are plenty that are and we need to have the courage to find the best place for ourselves regardless of what most other people are doing.  This is particularly true when we look at the history of marriage in Western societies and notice that lifelong monogamy hasn't ever really worked for most people anyway.

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